That’s Dr. Charlie To You

“Is there a doctor on board?”

This is it. My time to shine. My opportunity to rise to the occasion. What if I get it wrong? What should I do? The imposter syndrome creeps in. Seconds creep by wasted as I hesitate. I have to do this. This is what I’ve been training for. I raise my hand. “I’m a doctor.”

“Please come this way.”

I follow the attendant to the back of the plane. The passengers we walk by are becoming increasingly distraught. Children are crying. Adults are trembling in their seats. No one is willing to look at the poor soul in the last row who is suffering so visibly.

“Can you help them?”

“I’ll do what I can,” I say solemnly as I approach the passenger. They are hunched over and clearly in pain. I kneel beside them. “What seems to be the problem?”

“I…” they pause, the plane has hit a bit of turbulence. I grab the armrest of their seat to steady myself and it’s then that I notice they have a worn-out composition notebook in their lap and the last few inches of a number two pencil held tightly in their sweaty palm. They speak again. “I don’t remember how to calculate a dilution.”

“Oh,” I say relieved. “Just use the formula M1V1 = M2V2.”

All at once they stop trembling. They look up at me, smiling, tears of joy running down their face. “Yes! Yes! That’s it! Thank you!”

The passengers around us look on in awe as the attendant escorts me back to my seat. The plane erupts into applause. I sit back down and smile as the attendant hands me a complimentary beverage. Finally, all those years of school have paid off.

I graduated this past weekend! After four years of undergrad and six years of grad school, I finally have my doctorate!

I’ve earned my wizard robes at last!

To be precise, I now have a PhD in Chemistry. I defended my dissertation and passed back in March. Once you pass your defense, people like to start calling you “Dr” already but in my experience, it doesn’t feel real until graduation. I’m not sure what will come next, but it feels good to have reached this milestone.

My dissertation was on redox-coupled spin crossover in cobalt coordination complexes. Like most interesting things about transition metals, this process primarily concerns the d-orbitals. Seeing the shape of these orbitals helps us understand much of their behavior.

Shapes of the d-orbitals. Note that the high energy eg orbitals are aligned with the axes along which ligands coordinate to the metal center. D-orbital-splitting.png

The names of these orbitals come from their positions relative to the XYZ axes in three-dimensional space. Unlike s- and p-orbitals, the d-orbitals do not play a direct role in sigma bonding but can form pi bonds with suitable ligands. In a lone metal ion, these d-orbitals all have the same energy. Once a ligand, which can be any Lewis base, coordinates to the metal it interacts with the d-orbitals through electrostatic interactions that change their energies relative to each other. These energy differences determine the electronic configurations in these orbitals. In certain first-row transition metals this can lead to either high-spin or low-spin configurations. Spin is a property of electrons and some subatomic particles denoted by upwards and downwards pointing arrows.

d-orbital diagrams for an octahedral d5 complex showing low-spin (left) and high-spin (right) configurations. Paulin eta Hunden printzipioak.png

This is a fundamental aspect of inorganic chemistry that seems simple on the surface. But like much of science, these seemingly simple concepts conceal much depth. Because d-orbital electrons determine many of the properties of a transition metal complex including magnetic susceptibility and what spectroscopic transitions are possible, the arrangement of electrons into low- and high-spin configurations is something that a great many researchers are interested in, giving rise to the field of spin crossover.

Spin crossover was first discovered in the 1930s and occurs in first-row transition metal complexes with ligands that induce an intermediate splitting between orbitals so that an appropriate stimulus (i.e. heat, light, pressure) can induce a drastic electronic rearrangement in the complex. This can result in changes in color, magnetic properties, and molecular geometry. A lot of the interest in spin-crossover comes from a desire to create molecular sensors and switches, as well as novel display technologies. My research concerned redox-coupled spin crossover, a lesser-studied variant in which adding or removing an electron causes a subsequent rearrangement of the d-orbitals.

That’s not all I did, though. I also got to be a teaching assistant for multiple classes covering topics like epoxy resins, fractional distillation, chromatography, and organic synthesis. I presented my research at a Gordon Conference and had the honor of being invited to speak at the ENY ACS Future Leader’s seminar. I met a lot of talented scientists and made some great friends. I performed with multiple ensembles as part of the Rensselaer Music Association. I got into tabletop gaming first as a player and then as a game master. And the whole time I’ve been serving as an alumni coordinator for my fraternity in Upstate New York.

I’m looking forward to whatever my next adventure will be. In the meantime, I’ll be catching up on my TBR pile, writing more, and shoveling yet more hours into the furnace that is my crippling addiction to real-time strategy games. Feel free to get in touch if you or someone you know is looking to hire a new PhD chemist.

Modern Fantasy Is Sleeping On The Pike-And-Shot Era

Woodcut of the Battle of Dornach. Public Domain Image From Wikipedia

If you’re like me and spent far too much time on the internet, you’ve probably encountered the same question in SFF genre forums repeatedly. Why are so many fantasy works set in a “medieval” world? There are a few answers to this. One is tradition, Tolkien and other giants of the genre grounded their stories in medieval aesthetics. Another is that medieval settings are familiar to fantasy fans. An author doesn’t need to spend time on endless exposition if they can fall back on preexisting ideas already in their readers’ heads.

This is all well and good but inevitably these settings get old. Recent authors like Brian McClellan and Django Wrexler have made gunpowder fantasy popular. It’s fantasy, but with guns. This sub-genre draws on imagery from the Napoleonic Wars and similar periods. Like the medieval era, this period of history looms large in people’s minds. Unfortunately, this jump skips past an entire era of human history between 1400 and 1700 (approximately, I’m not a historian) when gunpowder hadn’t quite achieved supremacy and armored warriors and ranks of pikemen were still common sights on the battlefield.

I’m using pike-and-shot because fantasy books and D&D Campaigns tend to be rather violent, but this new mode of warfare was far from the only thing that changed. It was during this time that modern banking was developed and Europe and the idea of the state first arose. It was also a time of discovery when the scientific method was first conceived and the ideals of the Enlightenment were promulgated. All of these ideas are perfect for a fantasy setting. And to be fair some fantasy IPs do use imagery from this period, Warhammer Fantasy stands out among them. But it still feels that this period has been woefully neglected.

This was a period of immense changes in Europe and the rest of the world. Changes bring conflict and inspire all kinds of questions for a fantasy setting that authors and dungeon masters could seek to answer. What use is a wizard’s fireball when a row of arquebusiers can take out rows of spear-wielding infantry? What will happen when the king’s subjects decide not to pay their taxes until they get the services they are owed? What did that disgruntled priest just nail to the door?

The classical Forgotten Realms settings already verge on the beginnings of an early modern setting so why not move the clock a few years forward?

Book Review: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

I really liked this book. It didn’t hook me at first, and I thought it slowed down a bit in the middle, but I’ve always enjoyed Reynolds’ work and John Lee is a great narrator. Ultimately, the ending was fantastic and I think the Goodreads score of 4.2 is completely justified.

House of Suns follows three first-person POVs. Two of these belong to Campion and Purslane, clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian born nearly six million years before when humanity was just starting to explore the galaxy. Since then they and the thousand other clones of Abigail Gentian have crossed the galaxy countless times assisting and observing the many human cultures that have come and gone during that time. The third POV consists of flashbacks from Abigail Gentian’s childhood, memories that all of the clones share. At the beginning of the novel Purslane and Campion are running several decades late for the Gentian Line reunion, an event that happens every quarter million years at which the clones of Gentian Line sync their memories and conduct various pieces of business. At first, this tardiness is a major problem as the two of them have become romantically involved and the implications of them both arriving late together are obvious. As it turns out, their tardiness saves their lives. When they arrive at the reunion and discover that the entire star system has been destroyed in an effort to wipe out all of the Gentian clones. Luckily there are other survivors, and together they have to discover why someone would try to wipe them out aa well as find the collaborator in their midst.

It’s during the investigations and politicking that follow the ambush that the plot slows down a bit. Although we learn a great deal about the characters involved I found some parts of this book drags. The ending however makes it worth it. Reynolds excels at portraying the weirdness of post-human societies and basking in the enormity of the universe. Read this book, or listen to it on Audible like I did, if you want a story that takes place on long time scales (60,000+ years), have a fascination with megastructure concepts, or like to ponder the relationship between memory and identity.

Last of Us: Was Joel Right?

If you played the game like I did you were probably looking forward to the season finale of HBO’s Last of Us adaptation in which Joel tears through a hospital full of fireflies to save Ellie’s life. The internet has been filled with discussions of whether Joel was right to do what he did.

But all these arguments are irrelevant because there is no way that the doctor had IRB approval. I jest, because the fireflies almost certainly don’t have anything like an IRB (Institutional Review Board). What organization gets ahold of the first (as far as we know) person with immunity to cordyceps and decides the best route is to immediately kill them? The doctors could have run blood tests. They could have tried to infect Ellie on purpose to study how her body reacts. They had lots of non-destructive options and the fact that the fireflies wouldn’t question this clearly insane doctor who decided to kill the patient upon first meeting doesn’t bode well for their organization’s survival.

Obviously, writers for both the game and show probably went with this ending because it is the easiest to convey. It would be difficult to convey a long series of boring, uncomfortable, unethical tests. But people make bad decisions all the time so who knows maybe this scenario is more realistic than I’m giving it credit. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that bleeding and leeches were standard practice.

On a related note, why don’t the fireflies try to build their own communities? There’s obviously plenty of room and Tommy’s commune shows that it is possible. With their networks and resources, the fireflies should be able to build and protect at least one commune of their own.

Betrayal Is Such A Fun Game

Dhadius "Dhaddy" The Scarlet. Objectively the best character in the game.

Betrayal, both in its original form and in the D&D-themed variant Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, is a lot of fun. With the variety of end-game scenarios and the random map generation no two playthroughs are the same. Plus the game mechanics are basic enough that they don’t get in the way of the pre-built storytelling and roleplay opportunities that the game creates. I think it’s a really good game for people who want a pre-built RPG adventure. I’d give it a 4/5.

Book Review: Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings

I’ve been on a Max Hasting kick lately. If you’re a history buff, you have probably heard about him. I started with his book on the Korean War, then moved on to Retribution, his book about the end of the war in the pacific. And now I’ve finished his book on Vietnam.

This is another case of a book I first bought in print and never got to until I found it on Audible. The book itself is probably thick enough to stop a bullet, and its contents certainly deliver the tragedy that the title promises. That was largely the problem I had with getting through the physical version, it’s too big to care around in a bag easily and requires a huge time investment.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy gives the reader exactly what it promises. Hasting’s knack for description and emphasis on the very human stories of the people who lived through the conflict. Telling the story of a war where many of the participants lost much and in the end found themselves asking what the point of it was.

It’s a good book made even better by the excellent narration provided by Peter Noble. I give it a 5/5.

Book Review: Nona the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir has a distinct voice and a talent for writing prose that reveals nothing, hints at everything, and keeps you reading.

I don’t really know how to describe Muir’s writing to you. She manages to combine grimdark, internet culture, bible references, and Tumblr together into a compelling narrative. What’s more, Muir doesn’t mind reminding us that she will do whatever she wants and we will probably like it.

Nona the Ninth (NtN) is the third entry in what is now the Locked Tomb Series, it was originally a trilogy, but all of us who have ever tried to make something out of an idea know that these things inevitably grow.

The greatest warning I have to give about this book is that it is slow. Telling the story from the perspective of someone who is practically a child was a brave choice. Somehow, NtN manages to be a book in which nothing happens, a lot is revealed, and a plot where nothing but loose threads remain.

I really liked this book, it’s certainly not for everyone, but read this modern science fantasy novel if…

  • You grew up on Tumblr
  • You want to dive into an active cosplay, and theory community
  • You want to finish a book with more questions than you started it with
  • You don’t care if the POV and authorial voice changes from chapter to chapter or book to book (Muir does this very well).
  • You want to sympathize with necromancers.
  • You like campy dialogue and internet culture.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, go read the first book in this series; Gideon the Ninth. If you want to tell me I’m wrong or just chat, come find me on Twitter. If you have any specific theories or thoughts about Nona the Ninth or the greater Locked Tomb Series leave a comment below.

Four Hard Science Fiction Books You Should Read

The last title of the Expanse series is a callback to the title of the first.

A genre made popular by the recent explosion of the Expanse by James SA Corey and its television adaptation, hard science fiction is a genre with a history as old as science fiction itself. With the series complete, this is the time to explore other greats of the genre, including one with a future movie adaptation by none other than Dennis Villeneuve.

We’re about to experience a renaissance of science fiction movies and television. With luck, more of these books will be adapted soon.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold's flair for the existential vastness of space is evoked in the series cover art

Alastair Reynolds began his career as an astrophysicist working for the European Space Agency. He is an extremely prolific writer of short stories, many of which take place in the Revelation Space setting and provide the novels with greater context. Read this book if you are looking for epic interstellar adventures at sub-light speeds.

Check out my essay on mind uploading in fiction if you want to read about Revelation Space and related works.

Blue Collar Space by Martin L. Shoemaker

A commercial shuttle is seen leaving a ring station

Blue Collar Space is a rejection of “Big Man Science Fiction” that focuses on the people who built the future those larger-than-life characters exist in. Its subjects include civil engineers on the moon, father-daughter lunar hikes gone wrong, and other examples of people living their lives and saving humanity in less glamorous ways. Read it if you want to be immersed in lives that our descendants might one day live out in space.

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

This is another series that gets the vastness of space right

Of the four books on this list “Gardens of the Sun” has the most in common with the Expanse. It envisions a future where Earth has been wracked by climate change and the remaining authoritarian empires on Earth devote most of their resources to shape and rebuild the ruined environment. Genetic engineering has made many things impossible, including novel synthetic ecosystems in the outer solar system. With Earth’s governments on the verge of developing a new and improved fusion engine, the many settlements of the solar system are wary of an increased Earth presence in the outer solar system. Read this book if you want a future mix of political scheming, warfare, and hopeful but sometimes strange depictions of future science.

I also just learned that you can get the Quiet War and its Sequel Gardens of the Sun in one big omnibus edition. I’ll be doing a re-read of this series soon so keep yours eyes out for more posts about it.

Rendevous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Perhaps the most minimalist title of the bunch

A classic of the hard science fiction genre. “Rendevous With Rama” is a science fiction classic that follows a group of astronauts sent on a detour to a massive alien ship that is using our Sun to perform a slingshot maneuver. While the governments of Earth and the other planets debate how to respond to the object, the scientists of Earth scramble to understand the object and advise a team of accidental explorers on how to make the best use of their limited time exploring the object. Read this book if you want a story that evokes a sense of the unknowable and the vast scale of our universe. You should also read it if you plan to watch the upcoming Dennis Vilneuve adaptation.

Book Review: After the Revolution by Robert Evans

I finished reading a book. Which for me is saying quite a lot. This time I finished reading After the Revolution by Robert Evans.

After the Revolution by Robert Evans
I borrowed this image from AK Press, an anarchist publishing house.

These days have a dozen or so books that I am “reading” at any one time, so actually finishing one is quite remarkable. This book is remarkable too, for a few reasons.

About Robert Evans

First off, it’s a book published by an anarchist publishing house called AK Press. They’re completely democratic and worker-owned. They also publish about twenty books every year. They’re really cool and you should check them out.

The second is that it’s a book by Robert Evans, who you may know for his work as a journalist, his multiple podcasts, or his time at Or maybe even from his other book, A Brief History of Vice.

This is Evans’ first foray into fiction and it doesn’t disappoint. If you have listened to his podcast “Behind the Bastards” you can tell that he has read a lot of fiction and non-fiction for both fun and profit. It’s always exciting when someone who can reference classic science fiction so readily and critique Ben Shapiro’s terrible science fiction so fiercely decided to publish their own book.

Setting and Characters

A map of Austin TX and its surroundings
After the Revolution references Texas geography a lot. If you’re like me and not a native a map will probably help. Link.

After the Revolution takes place in a post-USA North America, where the former states have balkanized into a handful of smaller states, each of them experimenting with different ways of living. Kind of. The most direct successor of the USA, the AmFed, seems like a pretty safe place to live but also pretty dull. The moving city of posthuman nomads lovingly named “Rolling Fuck” where alcohol and narcotics flow freely at all times of the day seems a lot more fun.

This book is set primarily in the failed libertarian experiment that is the Republic of Texas. It’s not a very stable polity. The Free City of Austin and the Secular Defense Force (SDF) are the main players were care about in terms of sane governments. The other is the Heavenly Kingdom, a group of christofascist militias with an excellent command of social media and propaganda, and also a willingness to shell civilian neighborhoods into submission at the first sign of resistance. At the start of the book this conflict has been simmering for years, but that is about to change. That brings us to the three POV characters we get to follow.

Manny – a fixer who was born and raised in Austin. Manny makes a living by making introductions for foreign journalists. He has dreams of saving up to move to a less violent part of the world, like Europe.

Roland – a posthuman combat vet with almost no memory of his past. Roland prefers to spend his days ingesting as many drugs as he can get his hands on. He does this to dull his enhanced senses while he works very hard to avoid killing people. He is very good at killing people and is nearly unkillable himself.

Sasha – a nice studious girl attending high school in the AmFed. She became radicalized online and even fell in love with a soldier fighting for the Heavenly Kingdom. She’s been hiding her allegiance from her parents for two years while she prepares to emigrate to the Heavenly Kingdom and work to see God’s will done on Earth.

The Verdict

Now, I’m just going to say it, I really enjoyed this book. I don’t normally take an interest in stories that fall into the twenty-minutes-into-the-future category but honestly, that’s a mistake on my part. With the exception of some especially magical nanobot healing, Evans created a setting that feels real and not too far away from the present.

In the acknowledgments, Evans says that this is a book mainly about trauma, and we are presented with a lot of characters who are all dealing with trauma in different ways. What I think he did so masterfully, was craft a future America that could feel real and relatable, no doubt thanks to his experience as a war correspondent in the Middle East. We tend to otherize the people who are victimized by western bombing campaigns in the Middle East. Evans does a phenomenal job portraying scenes we expect to see on the news overseas as taking place on a continent more familiar to us. The book challenges us to otherize the characters but we can’t help but empathize with them.

I think this is a really great book. Robert Evans did a fantastic job of envisioning a future where all the bad things that we don’t like to imagine happening here actually could. Easily 5/5, especially when the novel stands on its own. The ending leaves room for possible sequels but doesn’t require them. If you’re hesitant about buying a copy for yourself you can listen to the book online. But I really recommend buying a copy if you can afford it to support a smaller press.

Stay tuned for a series of reviews of Brian McClellan’s new book; In The Shadow Of Lightning.


A very belated movie review.

This movie came out back in 2017 and I’m reviewing it now, why? Because it’s 2021 and I finally got around to watching it. The story is about a man, his wife, and his wife’s land. Also, he killed his wife. Also, it’s based on a 2010 novella by Stephen King.

When I saw the trailer for this I expected a dark supernatural thriller where a man named Wilfred kills his wife. What I got was much more. The movie is spooky, with plenty of horrors, but it might not be supernatural. The movie is dark, sad, and suspenseful. Yet everything Wilfred is subjected to could be either supernatural or natural. All of it could be the doing of a vengeful spirit or just the torment of a guilty conscience. But then, Wilf talks a lot about heaven and hell so maybe it’s a story about divine judgment.

I’d give it a 3.8/5.

It’s a solid movie. It’s the kind of movie that makes you pay attention to it. It’s intense, quiet, has more than its fair share of gruesome, and it’s very very well made. Go give it a watch.